Maxed Out 

A few bad apples…

By G.D. Maxwell

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I’m pretty sure that was the high point of George Orwell’s Animal Farm according to the faculty at Father Guido Sarducci’s Five-Minute University. I don’t know; I read the book before matriculating at that august institution and was, therefore, given a pass on Classics 101: Intro to 20 th Century Literature.

Instead, I studied psychology. Perhaps studied is too rigorous a word. I treaded water in the psychology faculty long enough to get close to fulfilling the degree requirements before moving on to, I believe, philosophy. I was working my way backwards through the ‘Ps’.

Psychology at the undergraduate level was largely the study of studies undertaken by solemn men and women in white lab coats observing how white mice reacted to various stimuli and deprivations, mice standing in for people in what I think was an ironic statement on both university life and larger society in general.

I had no real burning desire to study psychology but I had an even less burning desire to go to Vietnam and I hadn’t yet hoodwinked the Selective Service into my bye on that misadventure. Besides, the ratio of comely co-eds to horny guys in the psychology faculty was something like 19:1, odds even I could appreciate notwithstanding they always wanted to mess with my head before we got on with our clinical experiments in human sexuality.

What I remember most of psychology – in the spirit of Five-Minute U – are two bizarre experiments on human behaviour. Both have been on my mind lately as I watch the pathetic dog and pony show Bush and Rummy parade before the U.S. public to explain the seemingly unexplainable behaviour taking place in the 51 st state: Iraq.

In 1961, Stanley Milgram was doing the white lab coat thing at Yale University. He was still chewing on the atrocities committed by Nazis in WWII and the subsequent Nuremberg Trials – Five-Minute U’s lesson on Nuremberg: Just following orders won’t keep you from hanging – when he hatched the idea for his obedience trials.

Having tired of spending his days with grad students and white mice, Doc Milgram decided to experiment on humans. He advertised for people to take part in an obedience experiment – offering $4.50 for an hour’s work – and got his subjects, a cross-section of Yalies and Townies.

The subjects were the experiment’s "teachers". Their job was to ask the "learners" a series of questions. The white lab-coated authority figure explained this was an experiment delving into the role punishment played in learning performance. For each wrong answer, the teacher was to throw a switch, administering an electric shock to the learner. Shocks began at a benign 15 volts and moved upward for each subsequent wrong answer in 15 volt increments to 450 volts, each escalation being represented by another switch. The final two switches beyond 450 were marked "XXX".

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